Can Politics be Truly Caring and Compassionate? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ron Anderson   

When shown the word pairing, "compassionate politics," most people seem puzzled or they give a cynical look and say, "That's an oxymoron." And why not? Politics is associated with dishonesty, bribery, corruption, and ruthless self-centeredness. How could it be compassionate?

Politics is just the exercise of power in the making of policies, and policy-making is not inherently evil. In our conflict-ridden world, politicians are under great strain and their policies will never be fair to everyone. Some politicians may even increase the suffering of others for personal gain. But if a politician genuinely cares for the well-being of others and acts on that caring, then he or she engages in "compassionate politics."

Imagine a society filled almost entirely with people whose purpose in life is to be kind. In this dream society, almost everyone lives by the golden rule: treat others as you would want them to treat you. Now imagine that you had the chance to live in this dream society. Would you take it? Would you be able to adapt even though you would have to be kind to people even when they were rude or unkind to you? Could everyone you know stand to live in a place where you were expected to forgive others who did you wrong? What if revenge or retribution were outlawed, how many people would move somewhere else?helpinoldermanphotoshorter

The point is that many people would not want to live in such a society. It would demand too much effort. They'd need to change long-held attitudes and fight knee-jerk reactions. We can, however, use this dream society as an inspiration as we work to forge a more just, real society.

Working toward this vision would require a humane transformation of politics. The power lock of "masculine" politics-which views empathy and compassion as signs of weakness-would need to give way to a politics that derives power from a balanced embrace of both caring and decisiveness.

In addition, a compassionate society needs a collective "moral will." In other words, the hearts and minds of the people must truly be committed to compassionate action toward others as well as themselves. If we all are committed to live and act more compassionately, little by little the barriers of revenge, hatred, and fear will break down. These negative forces prop up the ugly side of politics.

Authentically compassionate people, armed with a vision of compassionate communities and societies, offer our most potent antidote to immoral, inhumane politics. Few in the world are truly compassionate, but as we move in that direction, there is more and more hope for the institution of politics and for policies at all levels that reduce suffering and improve the well-being of everyone.

Lest these arguments seem only idealistic or academic, look at two signs of hope for the future of compassion: the new Charter for Compassion and the academic analysis of compassion.

On November 12, 2009, British scholar Karen Armstrong and the Council of Conscience, a board of 18 members representing the dominant religion and spiritual groups around the world, released the world's first Charter for Compassion. Thousands of supporters had contributed to the formulation of the charter, a short but powerful 312-word document with the intent of bringing compassion back into the heart of society.

Within six weeks of its release, the charter had been affirmed by 30,000 people across the globe who promise to work and live with compassion. Many who advocate compassion are excited about the prospects for good to come from this movement. The charter's ability to inspire many disparate groups and individuals so quickly may be that it emphasizes what we all have in common-the Golden Rule: "The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves...[I]n our divided world, compassion can build common ground."

Compassion as a subject of inquiry is increasingly turning up in the publications of academic social and political scientists.

samaritandilemmabig "The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?" is the best example of this trend. The book is sometdeborahstone2hing of a manifesto for compassionate policy makers.

In her inspiring case for compassionate government policies, award-winning political scientist Deborah Stone argues that democracy depends on altruism rather than self-interest. She shows how governments that help those who suffer are needed to make up for the shortfall in individual charitable contributions to those in dire straits.

Even in a country like the United States where so called volunteerism is the highest in the world and where private donations are very high, millions of people remain hungry, unable to pay for basic housing, and lack basic health care. The United States and other contemporary societies need ways to attract the most ethical and empathic citizens into politics.

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Compassion News

The ground-breaking Charter for Compassion celebrated its anniversary November 2010 with a 2-hour TED-prize presentation at the UN.
           Karen Armstrong, chief architect of the Charter for Compassion, on Sept. 11, 2010 posted a great article on Compassion and anti-Muslim sentiments on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.
           Over 60,000 people, plus organizations around the world such as the Presbyterian Church, have endorsed the Charter for Compassion.